BRUSSELS -- Russia's August war with Georgia and its recent natural-gas standoff with Ukraine have had a pivotal impact on EU plans for its eastern neighbors, Eneko Landaburu told a hearing in Brussels on January 20.
Landaburu, the European Commission's director-general for external relations, told the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee that "the aggressive nature of Russia's policies" regarding its neighbors puts the EU "in a position where it becomes vital for us to reinforce cooperation with our eastern neighbors."
The next EU summit in March is expected to endorse a European Commission plan to set up a new Eastern Partnership program within the auspices of European Neighborhood Policy (ENP).
Two months later, on May 7, EU leaders will hold a joint summit with their counterparts from Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan in Prague to cement the initiative.
There is no consensus in the union to start negotiations of accession -- that is a fact.
Landaburu said a "successful" Eastern Partnership would be the "best thing" for its participants' ambitions to "one day" join the EU. This is the first time the EU has made a direct link between the ENP and enlargement.
However, Landaburu warned membership hopefuls that, for the time being, the EU remains divided on the issue of future enlargement. "The question of accession is not on the [EU] agenda, [whether] you like it or not," he said. "It's a political reality. There is no consensus in the union to start negotiations of accession -- that is a fact."
This applies to potential eastern applicants. The more affluent and better-integrated Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland could join the EU in a matter of months.Not Popular With Moscow
The tangible aspects of the EU's new offer to its six neighbors boil down to the prospects of free trade and greater opportunities for the countries' citizens to travel and work in Europe.
Landaburu singled out Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko for criticism.
All six countries will also be given the opportunity to negotiate association treaties with the EU. While this is not a guarantee of membership, Landaburu noted that all of the ex-communist countries to join the EU in its 2004 expansion signed association treaties with the bloc in the 1990s.
Landaburu noted that the EU's activity on its eastern flank is seen as a challenge by Moscow. "What we are doing with our eastern policy doesn't please the Russians," he said. But, he added, "it's not our job to pursue policies that are particularly pleasant for Mr.[Russian Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin."
However, the EU official also stressed the bloc will continue to try and build up ties with Moscow, too. "Given the interdependency of the EU and Russia, given our strategic interests which are at stake, it is in our interest to have good relations with Russia," Landaburu noted.
These interests include energy cooperation -- Russia remains the EU's single-largest supplier -- and collaboration on global issues. The EU in November resumed talks with Russia, suspended in the wake of the Georgian war, on a new partnership treaty.'Nothing New' Offered
Some European Parliament members in the audience grumbled that the Eastern Partnership offers nothing that is essentially new. Marie Anne Isler Beguin, who chairs the parliament's delegation for the South Caucasus, suggested the initiative was little more than window dressing.
"I have the impression [that the new proposals] are an attempt to camouflage the weakness of the Neighborhood Policy," Isler Beguin said. "Because what is it that you're offering the six countries? An association agreement, [easier] visas, free trade -- there is nothing new there, Mr. Landaburu, nothing new that hasn't already been offered Ukraine and Georgia, for example. And, moreover, it is going to take a long time."
Isler Beguin went on to say that the strategic partnership charters signed recently by the United States with Ukraine and Georgia represent a "greater investment" than that held out by the EU. She said the EU needs to give its eastern neighbors clear membership prospects, which alone could serve as sufficient incentives for reform.
The head of the parliament's Ukraine delegation, Adrian Severin, noted that the new EU plans could upset the established hierarchies among the EU's neighbors and damage the standing of front-runners. "Ukraine is certainly not extremely enthusiastic to see that the same offer is going to [have to] be shared with others," Severin said.One Basket For All
This appears to be one of the major downsides of the new EU thinking. Belarus, with its authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka, and Moldova, with its increasingly antidemocratic tendencies, could theoretically be elevated to the same level as Ukraine with its four-year record of reforms, however patchy.
Perhaps mindful of this, Landaburu launched a stinging attack on Ukraine. He blamed divisions within the country's leadership for failing to quickly resolve the pricing dispute between Kyiv and Moscow that resulted in a catastrophic cutoff in European gas supplies.
Landaburu appeared to single out President Viktor Yushchenko for particular blame, saying the Ukrainian leader had purposely torpedoed an agreement reached in December 2008 between Ukraine's Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and her Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin because of an "internal row."
The EU official said Ukraine's domestic troubles of the past four years have left the country "weakened" in its relationship with Russia -- and have also weakened the EU's ability to assist it.
It became clear on January 20 that the Eastern Partnership project is, among other things, a move away from the Black Sea Synergy initiative launched in 2007, which was designed to include both Russia and Turkey as key regional players.
But just as the EU must tread carefully with Russia, it must be cautious not to offend Turkey as well.
In Brussels last week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan explicitly linked progress in his country's EU accession talks to Ankara's willingness to cooperate on Nabucco.
Nabucco is an increasingly vital pipeline project designed to link EU consumers directly with natural gas from the Caspian region -- and thus reduce the bloc's dependency on Russia.